The fourth and final episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season was released last week, which served as not only a finale to the season, but to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series as a whole. Of course, when anything great comes to an end, it’s bittersweet. However, all things considered, I think that the ending we got was the best we could have hoped for.
Obviously, some don’t feel this way. But I had a very particular and unique connection to the series’ story (as everyone who played it probably did – that’s kind of the whole point of choice-based narrative games) and from where I’m standing, I couldn’t be happier with the way Clementine’s story ended. In this article, I’ll attempt to explain why I think this ending is so amazing.
This should probably go without saying, but considering I’ll be discussing the end of a long-running series here, this article will contain MAJOR SPOILERS. Given the emotional impact that The Walking Dead games can have, especially when playing them without any prior knowledge of the narrative, I would very highly suggest playing them all for yourself and not getting spoiled by reading this article.
First, let me make clear that I’m going to be discussing why I think the finale of The Walking Dead: The Final Season worked so well from an emotional standpoint. I know there are some people who feel that the ending didn’t make logical sense, and if you feel this way I suggest that you click here to read this article, which attempts to explain why the ending actually does make logical sense.
So here’s the deal: The Walking Dead: The Final Season has a happy ending. About as happy as it could be, all things considered. Some people were upset that this ending doesn’t seem super emblematic of The Walking Dead franchise as a whole, which tends to be dark and bleak. However, personally, after seeing Clementine go through so many hardships over the past four seasons and seven years, I’m just really happy that my girl finally gets to be happy. But a happy ending on its own doesn’t really mean anything. If there was a story about someone who just breezed through life with no struggles at all and then their story ended happily, the audience would probably be like, “Who cares?” In order for a happy ending to really pay off, something has to be lost first. This is why narratives always have conflicts that need to be resolved. After that initial feeling of dread, the payoff of a happy ending is even greater. And in the final episode, The Walking Dead: The Final Season threatens to take away EVERYTHING.
(Obviously, I can only discuss the emotional impact of the game from my own point of view, but I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption that I’m far from the only one who followed an emotional path like the one I’m about to describe.)
When Clementine got bitten, everything seemed lost. In my playthrough, Violet had just barely managed to escape the bridge with her life (and, hooo boy, that bridge scene could be a topic of discussion all on its own), and given how much I love Violet and how worried I was for her, I was still reeling from that. Then, when it was revealed that Clementine was bitten, I felt like everything inside me broke. Shortly after the release of the final episode, I made a long, uncensored post on Reddit (warning: that Reddit post contains explicit language) describing in a bunch of unorganized thoughts how horrible I felt at this point in the game. I’m going to try to organize them a little more and present them better now.
Basically, the entire The Walking Dead series suddenly felt pointless. This was one of my favorite game series of all time, with Season One and Season Two in particular being two of my all-time favorite games, and The Final Season at this point looking like it could shape up to be one, too. I had been with Clementine since I first played Season One in 2013 and ended up becoming more emotionally attached to her than to probably any other fictional character I’d ever cared about. We’d endured countless hardships together, plenty of other characters we’d both loved had died for her. And now, after all that, none of it mattered, because she had gotten bitten and was going to die.
I basically went through all five stages of grief in quick succession (minus acceptance, which I never ended up having to get to). I was in denial, hoping that somehow her split-open boot had saved her from the walker trying to get at her, before it was revealed that she had in fact been bitten; I was angry that the writers would let this happen to this character who I’d come to care so much about; I bargained with the game, pleading that Clem or AJ would chop off her leg to save her from the impending infection; and then, I felt depression. This stage lasted a long time. It began with the realization that cutting off Clem’s leg wasn’t a super realistic possibility. Clem and AJ were out in the open, with walkers all over the place. If AJ cut Clem’s leg off there, her scream would draw the walkers, she wouldn’t be able to escape, and AJ wouldn’t be able to escape either if he tried to carry her. I had grown accustomed to the rule of The Walking Dead universe that when a limb gets bitten, you need to cut it off almost immediately in order to prevent death, and it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen here. I knew that Clementine was going to die.
When I say that I felt depression, I don’t mean the really sad kind. I’m talking about the kind of depression that leaves you so upset, right down to your core, that you just stop caring completely. To have Lee die for Clementine back in Season One was different; the game had conditioned the player to care about Clem more than Lee, so to have him die protecting her felt fitting, and completed his own narrative arc in the process. Not to hate on AJ – I love the little guy (especially after the events that would come later), but the fact of the matter is that he’s a potentially psychopathic child who I really only got to know this fourth season. Whatever love I had for him simply did not compare at all to the emotional bond I felt with Clementine, so having her die for him was not a narrative point I anticipated I’d enjoy.
Clementine’s imminent death was more than just the death of a character to me. Aside from the fact that this was a character I’d grown emotionally attached to, her upcoming death represented something more. As I said earlier, Telltale’s The Walking Dead series has been one of my favorites of all time for quite some time now, but Clementine’s death threatened to take that away from me, too. Knowing what was bound to happen, the entire series up to this point felt pointless and I stopped caring about all of it. All of my emotional memories from the series didn’t mean anything anymore. This final episode was threatening to take away something I loved dearly, something I had spent so much emotional energy on, for practically my entire adult life.
And then the writers proceeded to twist the knife. Clementine’s supposed death scene plays out VERY similarly to Lee’s death scene in Season One, which felt very cheap. Not only are they killing off Clem, but they won’t even do her the favor of giving her her own, original death scene? The whole thing left a really bad taste in my mouth. I thought that I hated the game. After several years of playing through this series and loving it (well… most of it), I was really hating how they were ending it. It felt disrespectful to the fans and the characters and everything. Somehow, after already taking away so much, they managed to take away even MORE.
This is largely why I think this ending is so brilliant. Remember when I said earlier that the payoff of a happy ending is largely determinant on how much is lost first (directly influencing how much can be regained by things ending happily)? This is The Walking Dead we’re talking about, so I was obviously expecting to lose something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. In fact, given how much this last season was foreshadowing Clementine’s death (the fact that she dresses like Lee this season, the fact that the season’s opening credits theme song is called “Waiting Around to Die,” all the Season One Easter Eggs and references, etc.), I was almost convinced that Clementine WOULDN’T die, because that would be too obvious. I wasn’t prepared for it at all, and in the time between the bridge scene and the ranch flashback, this game managed to take away absolutely everything that I cared about in the series, and then somehow managed to keep taking. I almost stopped playing the game. I was so upset, I almost didn’t even care about seeing how the rest of it would play out. But, boy, am I glad I stuck with it.
After I told AJ to just leave Clem, not wanting to burden him with having to kill the person he cares about most in the world, the fact that he swung down the axe anyway before the scene cut to black left me suspicious and just hopeful enough to stick with it. I was cautiously trying to not be TOO hopeful, though; the possibility of Clementine actually surviving seemed pretty slim. So I waited with bated breath through the ranch flashback and scene of AJ fishing by himself, wondering when I was going to learn what happened to Clementine. And then the fake-out came. Now playing as AJ, I walked slowly back to the school as “Take Us Back” began to play (for those who don’t know, or don’t remember, this is the song that played during the credits of the last episode of Season One). When the camera panned to the front gates of the school, I was almost certain that we were about to cut to credits as the song continued, leaving Clem’s fate ambiguous, but not particularly hopeful. But the game didn’t cut to the credits. And then I finally got the ultimate payoff.
The StillNotBitten team took an enormous risk pulling all this off. I, and I’m sure many other fans, were ready to give up on the entire series, developing apathy and eventually even hatred for it for having played us all. But this is what ended up making the happy ending so great. If Clementine and company had just escaped from the boat and walked back to the school and everything was fine, it would still be a happy ending, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the emotional impact that it ended up having with the events playing out as they actually did. Of course, in retrospect, Clem’s near-death scene resembling Lee’s actual death scene is a nice nod, especially when considering the implications of Clem being able to conquer what Lee couldn’t. But that emotional journey of my first playthrough, feeling ALL the feelings, from shock to disgust to sadness to apathy to anger to desperation to cautious hopefulness and then, ultimately, to happiness, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and was one of the most profound moments I’ve ever experienced in a story, regardless of medium. Kudos, everyone who worked on this game. You nailed it.